The October Revolution: A Coup D’état?

(Initially written around October 2013)

The October Revolution of 1917 was the most significant event of the twentieth century. It saw the transfer of power in Russia from the Provisional Government to the soviets led by the Bolshevik Party, creating the world’s first socialist state. However it’s commonly referred to as a coup d’état, particularly by anticommunist historians such as Richard Pipes and Orlando Figes. The term coup d’état is usually used to describe an undemocratic, often violent, seizure of power carried out by a small group, typically a change at the ‘top’ of government. Revolution, on the other hand, is defined as an ‘overthrow of an established government or social order by those previously subject to it’. I will stress here that the term ‘revolution’ more accurately portrays the events of October, which were part of a much broader movement carried through by the Bolsheviks with the will of the Russian people, and that to brand the Bolshevik Revolution as a coup is merely an attempt to undermine its legitimacy.


How popular were the Bolsheviks?

Between the February Revolution and October Revolution, the Bolshevik Party was transformed from a relatively small organisation to a mass party. Membership had grown nearly fifteen-fold within this eight months interlude, from 24,000 to 350,000. This is an impressive feat considering the obstacles faced by the Bolsheviks, including the arrest and exile of key members throughout 1917, censorship of their paper Pravda, and the smear campaigns conducted against the party by the Provisional Government and media. For example, rumours were spread in the press that members – not least Lenin – were German spies. This was a convenient way of simultaneously discrediting the Bolsheviks and stirring up patriotism to counter the ever-increasingly anti-war sentiment. But even despite the rumours and setbacks, the Bolsheviks’ policies were clearly resonating with the Russian people, as support continued to grow whilst the other major political parties were becoming increasingly discredited.

Throughout 1917, the Social Revolutionaries (SRs) and the Mensheviks had held back the workers’ struggle for better living conditions and prevented the peasants from taking land from the nobility out of fear that this sort of disorder would be prejudicial to the conduct of the war; a war which was wholly unpopular amongst the majority of the Russian people. Lenin had captured the popular mood of disillusionment through his April Theses, which amongst other policies, advocated ending the war and making no concessions to the Provisional Government. Ultimately, the Bolsheviks’ political, social and economic programme dovetailed with the the aspirations of factory workers, soldiers, and sailors.

The Legitimacy of the Soviets

The ministers for the Provisional Government (instated after the abdication of the Tsar following. the February Revolution) had been assigned by the Fourth Duma, which had been elected five years prior to the February Revolution. The Constituent Assembly planned for November 1917 would have been the first national elections held by the Provisional Government. So, during the entirety of its existence, the Provisional Government had not been directly elected by the Russian people, was selected on an outdated mandate and overall had very little authority to govern.

Soviets were council-type bodies first established after the 1905 revolution that represented the workers and peasants across Russia. They had been revived in 1917 by the February Revolution, and in comparison to the Provisional Government, soviet deputies were elected democratically, subject to recall, and elections were held regularly. When the soviets initially arose after the 1905 revolution, Lenin recognised that this would be the way that the working class would govern. This idea was then explicitly highlighted in 1917 in his April Theses, where the slogan ‘all power to the soviets!’ was first coined.

Alexander Rabinowitch writes in The Bolsheviks in Power how the soviets became seen as the ‘harbinger and engine of social progress’, and ‘were politically stronger than the Provisional Government by virtue of their vastly greater and constantly growing support among workers, peasants, soldiers, and sailors.’ While few expressed any faith in the Provisional Government, there were regular demonstrations throughout 1917 in support of the soviets. Soldiers and sailors who came from peasant backgrounds began to identify themselves as part of the proletariat. In turn, they began to view the Provisional Government as as class of masters, and according to the commander-in-chief of the army at the time, class antagonisms between officers and men were upsetting the army’s ‘patriotic solidarity’. Consequentially, the soldiers were increasingly associating themselves with workers and the soviets, viewing the latter as the only body of power which they saw as legitimate.

By September the Bolsheviks had secured majorities on both the Petrograd and Moscow soviets, and by the time October came around, power was already solidly held by the soviets. The Provisional Government had lost all credibility, whilst the soviets were clearly the most democratic bodies in Russia which could effectively represent the workers, peasants, and soldiers.

The July Days

If the Bolsheviks were only interested in seizing power through a coup, one must wonder why they did not seize power during the turmoil of the July Days. The July Days were a series of spontaneous demonstrations in Petrograd, and indicated a complete loss of power of Petrograd’s governing institutions. The demonstrators’ congregation at the Bolshevik headquarters, and the banners promoting their slogan ‘All power to the Soviets’ showed that the Bolsheviks were seen as the only party that could facilitate a transfer of power into the hands to the soviets. Surely, a power-hungry Bolshevik party would have leapt at this opportunity? Rather, the Bolsheviks eventually called off the demonstrations. This is often said to be due to the Bolsheviks’ being caught off guard by the demonstrations, though this seems to be an inadequate explanation. It rather indicates that Lenin and the Bolsheviks wanted a broader mandate to govern.

The Bolsheviks did not yet lead the soviets, presenting a dilemma to the demonstrators. The current soviets were still under the control of bourgeois parties, whose interests lay in their own self-preservation. If the proletariat was to overthrow these bourgeois parties at this point, it would also mean to do away with the soviets, rather than granting them power. Thus a Bolshevik control over the soviets needed to be achieved first.

This predicament would explain why the slogan was temporarily withdrawn from official Bolshevik Party documents after the July Days, until its revival in September 1917. The July Days demonstrated wide support for the Bolsheviks’ policies, but more so, it indicated the Bolsheviks’ were committed to a legitimate transfer of power to the soviets, popularly backed by the masses. The July Days could have been a prime opportunity for a Bolshevik coup d’état, but their response to the uprising indicates different aspirations.

Aftermath of the July Days

The Bolsheviks were accused of organising the demonstrations of the July Days, and a military clampdown on Bolshevism was enacted by the government, which was in ways similar to the fascist model that later arose in Italy and later Germany. As Leon Trotsky wrote his History of the Russian Revolution, this right-wing reaction indicated how both the Provisional Government and the ruling class had convinced themselves of the Bolsheviks’ strong influence on the masses. By this point, it was clear that the Provisional Government was reaching its limits, and would fall one way or the other. As the war continued, Kerensky, the leader of the Provisional Government, was now considering abandoning Petrograd to the Germans as a way of suppressing the influence of the soviets and Bolsheviks. Furthermore, the imposition of a dictatorship was discussed in high military circles as well as by some industrialists; it was a very real and growing threat which the Bolsheviks recognised.

The ruling class’ reaction following the July Days and the anti-Bolshevik campaign in the Russian press signalled a prime opportunity for General Kornilov to attempt an insurrection. This was indeed an attempt at a coup d’état. Kornilov’s goal was to establish a dictatorship to restore order to Russia, to continue the war against Germany, and put an end to the revolutionary mood and the Bolshevik influence. Faced with this threat, the Bolsheviks were at the forefront of the mobilisation of resistance to Kornilov, temporarily defending the Provisional Government from being overthrown.

The failure of the coup was due to the unreliability of Kornilov’s troops and the response of the workers in Petrograd under the leadership of the Bolsheviks, who guided the resistance. Trains were diverted by railwaymen, printers refused to print publications supporting Kornilov, and metalworkers discouraged incoming troops, telling them that their officers had been deceitful. The receptiveness of the workers to the Bolsheviks heading of the mobilisation to counter Kornilov reflected their support for the Bolshevik programme and their fear of the alternative. The ability of the Russian working class to mobilise against undemocratic coups was clearly demonstrated in August, so one would assume that an undemocratic coup carried out by the Bolsheviks would have met a similar resistance!

The October Revolution

By October 1917, the Bolsheviks clearly enjoyed the support of the majority of Russian workers, and were the acknowledged leaders of the soviets. It was therefore only a matter of time before they would implement their slogan of ‘all power to the soviets’ and overthrow the Provisional Government. To Lenin’s dismay, the Bolsheviks’ plan of the soviets’ taking of power was not unexpected. Rumours had been circulating for weeks, but on the 18th of October, central committee member Kamenev declared his and Zinoviev’s disapproval of the Bolsheviks’ plans in the newspaper Novaya Zhizn. This would have given Bolshevik opponents plenty of time to organise the masses against the threat of a supposed coup.

On October 25, Trotsky opened the Congress of the Soviets announcing that ‘the Provisional Government no longer exists!’ to a storm of applause. The members of the Provisional Government were still in the Winter Palace. Rather than a violent coup d’état, power was simply surrendered to the Bolsheviks when the Mensheviks and SRs jointly staged a walkout of the All-Russian Congress of the Soviets. They believed that by disassociating themselves, they would be able to mobilise the public against the Bolsheviks’ attempts to seize power. But Sukhanov, a Menshevik at the time, later conceded that ‘by quitting the congress, we ourselves gave the Bolsheviks a monopoly of the Soviet, of the masses, and of the revolution.’

What is vital to consider about these events is the lack of any popular resistance to the transfer of power to the soviets. Although the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks believed there would be a reaction, they under-estimated the popular support for the Bolsheviks. The masses had shown during Kornilov’s insurrection that they had the power to thwart a coup d’état, but even with the weeks of publicised build up to the October Revolution, there was no retaliation. The Bolsheviks enjoyed strong popular support, the soviets had legitimacy much more far reaching than any other body, and millions across Russia understood the Bolshevik programme to represent their attitudes and goals. Furthermore, there were only 18 arrests and two fatalities during the entire insurrection. It was an astonishingly smooth and bloodless revolution.

The Constituent Assembly

The results and consequent dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918 is often cited as the ultimate proof that the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power was an undemocratic coup d’état. Bertram D. Wolfe, for example, argued that Lenin knew that the success of the Constituent Assembly would destroy the Bolsheviks’ chance to take power, so he purposefully set a date for his ‘coup’ to be before the elections.

In the elections, the Bolsheviks gained 23.9 per cent of the vote, which was drawn largely from the city-based industrial workers, and the SRs achieved 40 per cent, based on their huge peasant backing. However, the Constituent Assembly was elected on an old franchise that did not reflect the volatile and continually changing political situation. For example, the SRs had been listed as one party, despite the fact that the Left SRs had split the party and formed a coalition with the Bolsheviks by November. Similarly, the SRs’ election manifesto had been drawn up before the October Revolution had occurred, and as a result didn’t define the party’s stance on the event. Furthermore, news travelled slowly through Russia and many peasants were simply unaware of the significant events that had unfolded.

The Constituent Assembly did not convene until January. When the decision was reached by the Bolsheviks to dissolve the body, as the SR Sviatitskii recalled, its fate was sealed by the ‘fundamental indifference’ of the Russian people towards it. The SRs believed that it could rally the people against the Bolsheviks, yet there was little outcry against the dissolution. Again, the lack of protest is a stark contrast to how responsive the masses were in mobilising against Kornilov’s attempt at a coup in August. It is a clear indication that the transfer of power to the soviets and the end of the Provisional Government was, on the whole, a very popular move.

So…

Far from being the orchestrators of a coup d’état, the Bolsheviks were the vanguard of a mass movement, and their policies resonated with the concerns and attitudes of the majority of the Russian workers and peasants. This was, conversely, proved in the negative, through the clear lack of opposition to the seizure of power in October, and to the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly. The Bolsheviks were the only party willing to carry out the transfer of power to the soviets, which millions of Russian workers saw as the most legitimate body to rule, and they did so by the will of the people.

______________________

Bibliography

Carr, E. H. The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923: Volume One (London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1960)

Ferro, M. October 1917: A Social history of the Russian Revolution (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1980)

Figes, O. A People’s Tragedy (London: Jonathan Cape, 1996)

Fitzpatrick, S. The Russian Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2001)

Gatrell, P. Russia’s First World War: A Social and Economic History (Harlow: Peason Education Limited, 2005)

Luxembourg, R. ‘Chapter 4: The Constituent Assembly’ in The Russian Revolution [URL: http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/russian-revolution/ch04.htm%5D

Pipes, R. (ed.) Revolutionary Russia (London: Oxford University Press, 1968)

Rabinowitch, A. The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1976)

Rabinowitch, A. The Bolsheviks in Power: The First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2008)

Radek, K. The Paths of the Russian Revolution’ in Richardson, A. (Ed.) In Defence of the Russian Revolution:  A Selection of Bolshevik Writings, 1917-1923 (London: Porcupine Press, 1995)

Service, R. Lenin: A Biography (London: Pan Macmillan, 2000)

Trotsky, L. The History of the Russian Revolution (London: Pluto Press, 1977)

Trotsky, L.The History of the Russian Revolution to Brest-Litovsk’ in The Essential Trotsky (London: Unwin Books, 1963)

White, J. D. The Russian Revolution 1917-1921: A Short History (London: Hodder Headline PLC, 1994)

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